As Herschel Walker eyes Senate run, a turbulent past emerges

Politics

FILE – In this July 16, 2019, file photo, Herschel Walker talks about 150 years of college football during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Day in Hoover, Ala. Walker appears to have a coveted political profile for a potential Senate candidate in Georgia. (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — At first glance, Herschel Walker has a coveted political profile for a potential Senate candidate in Georgia.

He was a football hero at the University of Georgia before his long NFL career. He’s a business owner whose chicken products are distributed across the U.S. And he’s a Black conservative with backing from former President Donald Trump, a longtime friend.

But an Associated Press review of hundreds of pages of public records tied to Walker’s business ventures and his divorce, including many not previously reported, sheds new light on a turbulent personal history that could dog his Senate bid. The documents detail accusations that Walker repeatedly threatened his ex-wife’s life, exaggerated claims of financial success and alarmed business associates with unpredictable behavior.

Walker, now 59, has at times been open about his long struggle with mental illness, writing at length in a 2008 book about being diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, once known as multiple personality disorder. But it’s unclear how he would discuss these events as a candidate.

Walker did not respond to requests for comment. Multiple emails went unanswered, although his executive assistant confirmed they were received. AP also sent emails and left a message with his long-time attorney, who did not respond.

The Georgia seat is a top target for Republicans as they try to take control of the U.S. Senate in next year’s midterm elections. Walker’s potential bid is a wildcard. He might easily win the GOP primary with Trump’s help, setting up a general election fight against Democrat Raphael Warnock, who became Georgia’s first Black senator after a special election in January. But Republican leaders in Washington and Georgia are concerned that Walker’s history might haunt his campaign.

Walker “certainly could bring a lot of things to the table,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said in a recent interview. “But as others have mentioned, there’s also a lot of questions out there.”

Walker has yet to announce his intentions, but he has been consulting with political advisers in Georgia. A native of tiny Wrightsville, between Atlanta and Savannah, the former Dallas Cowboys star retired after the 1997 season and now resides in Texas. In a video posted to Twitter last month, he revs the engine of a sports car and says, “I’m getting ready, and we can run with the big dogs,” before revealing a Georgia license plate.

The Twitter tease intensified buzz about the potential for a celebrity candidate. But it also helped surface details about Walker’s troubled past, many first disclosed by Walker himself in his 2008 book, “Breaking Free.”

His account details years of struggles and an eventual diagnosis in 2001. Walker describes himself dealing with as many as a dozen personalities — or “alters” — that he had constructed as a defense against bullying he suffered as a stuttering, overweight child.

In an AP interview at the time, Walker emphasized his purpose was to help others with similar disorders. “People say, ‘Herschel is just trying to write something to make money,’” he said. “I say, ‘Guys, why would I write something like this to make money?’”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes dissociative identity disorder as “alternating between multiple identities,” leaving a person with “gaps in memory of everyday events.” It notes men with the disorder “exhibit more violent behavior rather than amnesia.”

In his book, Walker acknowledges violent urges. He writes that he played Russian roulette and recounts sitting at his kitchen table in 1991 pointing a gun, loaded with a single bullet, at his head. “I wasn’t suicidal,” Walker explained, but “just looked at mortality as the ultimate challenge.”

The book is framed as a turnaround story. He describes it as cathartic and casts himself as someone on the path to “integration” because of therapy and his Christian faith.

A watershed moment, he writes, came in February 2001, when he drove around suburban Dallas, hunting for a man who he said was avoiding his calls after being days late delivering a car Walker had purchased.

“The logical side of me knew that what I was thinking of doing to this man — murdering him for messing up my schedule — wasn’t a viable alternative,” Walker wrote. “But another side of me was so angry that all I could think was how satisfying it would feel to step out of the car, pull out the gun, slip off the safety, and squeeze the trigger.”

Ultimately, Walker wrote, he had a change of heart after seeing a “SMILE. JESUS LOVES YOU” bumper sticker on the man’s car-hauling truck. He decided to seek professional help.

“I’d been running for most of life, from what only I really knew but seldom talked about. It was time to stop running and face some harsh realities,” he wrote.

Walker’s threatening behavior continued well after the 2001 revelation, according to court records obtained by AP that have not previously been reported.

Four years later, in December 2005, Cindy Grossman, Walker’s ex-wife, secured a protective order against him, alleging violent and controlling behavior.

Grossman has said she was long a victim of Walker’s impulses. When his book was released, she told ABC News that at one point during their marriage, her husband pointed a pistol at her head and said, “I’m going to blow your f’ing brains out.” She filed for divorce in 2001, citing “physically abusive and extremely threatening behavior.”

In seeking protection from a judge in Dallas County, Grossman filed an affidavit from her sister, which described Walker as unwilling to accept that his former wife had begun dating another man.

Grossman told the court she got calls during that period from her sister and father, both of whom had been contacted by Walker. He told family members that he would kill her and her new boyfriend, according to Maria Tsettos, Cindy Grossman’s sister.

In an affidavit, Tsettos claimed Walker once called looking for his ex-wife while she was out with her boyfriend. Tsettos took the call and said Walker became “very threatening” when told of Grossman’s whereabouts. In Tsettos’ recollection, Walker “stated unequivocally that he was going to shoot my sister Cindy and her boyfriend in the head.”

On another occasion, Tsettos said she talked to Walker “at length” after he’d reached out to her online. He “expressed to me that he was frustrated with (Cindy) and that he felt like he had ‘had enough’ and that he wanted to ‘blow their f—— heads off,’” she recalled of the Dec. 9, 2005, exchange.

Two days later he called again and told Tsettos that he possessed a gun and planned that day to act on his threats, which he repeated in graphic language, she said.

Later that day, Walker confronted his ex-wife outside a mall when she was picking up their son from a party, according to her petition for a protective order.

In her account, she said Walker “slowly drove by in his vehicle, pointed his finger at (her) and traced (her) with his finger as he drove.”

When officers in Irving, Texas, contacted Walker, he denied that he’d made the threats, according to a police report the AP obtained through a public records request. But the sister’s account was concerning enough to police that they took for “safe keeping” a gun Walker had on the floor of his car, the report states.

A judge agreed, finding “good cause” to issue a protective order. He also barred Walker from possessing guns for a period of time.

Grossman, her divorce lawyer and Tsettos did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the AP.

Walker’s unpredictable behavior has carried into his chicken business, now known as Renaissance Man Food Services, according to court filings. His book itself was a shock.

The primary distributor of his products considered severing their relationship after Walker’s book came out. Kristin Caffey, then a poultry manager for the food distributor Sysco, said the revelations in the book, as well as Walker’s effort to publicize it, created “havoc” for the company.

“We weren’t aware that it was coming out, and we were blindsided,” Caffey, who worked directly with Walker, said in a 2019 deposition. “We had all kinds of people calling in about it, and we didn’t have answers to it,” she added, saying, “it was problematic for us being engaged with him at the time.”

Ultimately, the company chose to stick with Walker after the negative publicity died down, Caffey said.

More recently, Walker has made outsize claims about his business record. In repeated media interviews, Walker claimed his company employed hundreds of people, included a chicken processing division in Arkansas and grossed $70 million to $80 million annually in sales.

However, when the company applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan last year, it reported just eight employees. (It received about $182,000 in COVID-19 aid.)

In a recent court case, Walker gave far more modest revenue figures, indicating that the company averaged about $1.5 million a year in profit from 2008 to 2017. Meanwhile, Walker’s business associates testified in the same case that he doesn’t own chicken processing plants, as he claims. Instead, they described him as a licensing partner who lends his name to the enterprise — not unlike the kind of deals his friend Donald Trump has used to expand his brand for decades.

A wrongful termination lawsuit filed in 2018 by a friend and former manager of Walker’s company created an extensive record of Walker’s leadership. Although a judge ruled against the employee, John Staples, emails, documents and depositions in the case present Walker as a temperamental and unreliable business partner.

Walker persistently complained that his business partners were trying to cheat him out of money, the documents say. And they indicate he repeatedly fought with his associates over his focus on branching into frozen waffles, which he believed would be a future moneymaker for the company.

In 2017, an executive for the company that supplied chicken to Walker sent a concerned email, inquiring about $7,200 in expenses he said Walker had incorrectly tried to bill the company from his efforts to secure the waffle deal. The executive, now Simmons Foods Chief Operating Officer and President David Jackson, also cited “concerning comments” he’d heard that “raise questions about how the business is being operated.” The email does not detail the comments that raised alarms.

Staples did not respond to requests for comment. Jackson’s office did not make him available for comment, and a message left with a spokesperson for Simmons Foods was not returned.

In a deposition, Walker dismissed Staples as a “puppy.”

“I’m a big dog. I don’t play with puppies,” Walker said.

Since then, another business venture tied to Walker could also face trouble.

Last month, a Texas bank sued Walker and another business partner over an unpaid $200,000 debt secured to help finance a pizza restaurant. According to court filings, Walker personally guaranteed the loan.

Walker has not yet filed his response to the suit.

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Slodysko reported from Washington; Bleiberg reported from Dallas.

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